Book review: The Gentrification of the Mind

For queer communities the 1980s and early 90s were defined almost solely by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The disease rocked gay communities around the world, literally taking hundreds of thousands of lives in its wake.

While the immediate ramifications of the HIV/AIDS crisis are clear, there is also a lot more to it than just the loss of life that occurred. For a burgeoning community that was just finding its feet and its voice, the HIV/AIDS crisis didn’t just destroy human life, it also did a lot to destroy the growing political and social movements of the time.

This is a topic that Sarah Schulman explores in her excellent book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, which I read over the summer break. Part political treatise, part memoir, Schulman’s book presents a compelling argument that the HIV/AIDS crisis created a process of gentrification within queer communities that continues to have an impact to this day.

Schulman’s thesis starts with a description of physical gentrification. Using important historical analysis that documents the return of people returning to city centres in the 1980s following a range of economic shifts, she argues that the HIV/AIDS crisis opened up swathes of prime real estate (due to the deaths of so many people), allowing for the gentrification of city centres such as those in New York and San Francisco to occur. This was particularly pronounced as it was often the poorer and more sexually adventurous gay men who died during the epidemic, creating space from what was often poorer, gayer, neighbourhoods to be redeveloped.

But Schulman argues that this gentrification process went well beyond physical changes — it was also a process of the gentrification of the mind.

Schulman discusses this thesis in a number of ways, focusing on what she calls the ‘gentrification of creation’ and the ‘gentrification of our literature’, but it is on the gentrification of politics that I’d like to focus briefly. What Schulman argues is that the 1980s saw a significant loss of vision and creativity within queer movements. A radicalised edge was loss with a desire to be banal. Schulman argues that this very process was one caused, at least in large part, by the HIV/AIDS. She argues, for example:

I think it is obvious, though unexplored, that this terrible moment of lost vision is a consequence not only of America’s lost vision but also of the unexplored impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay and lesbian self. Contextualise this with the homogenization of cities where gays and lesbians’ political imagination once thrived. And most importantly, with the relationship between these two events: the unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity. Set it all against the backdrop of the Reagan/ Bush years, and we discover how we got here. To a place where homosexuality loses its own transformative potential and strives instead to be banal.

Schulman argues that this gentrification was the result of the very thing that gays were fighting for at the time: increased recognition. HIV/AIDS made it impossible for the general population to ignore gays and lesbians any longer — we were on TV shows and in newspapers every single day. To deal with this the mainstream sought out “representative homosexuals with whom they were comfortable, and integrate them into some realm of public conversation.” Because, as Schulman argues: “if they didn’t, the gay voice in America would be people with AIDS disrupting mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.”

This, Schulman argues is a clear process of gentrification:

This is a classic gentrification event. Authentic gay community leaders, who have been out and negotiating/fighting/uniting/dividing with others for years, the people who have built the formations and institutions of survival, become overlook by the powers that be. They are too unruly, too angry, too radical in their critique of heterosexism, too faggy, too sexual. The dominant culture would have to change in order to accommodate them. And most importantly they are telling the truth about heterosexual cruelty. The dominant culture needed gay people who would pathologize their own.

This gentrification however did not just occur due to external forces, but was internally driven as well. While many queers fought back against this process, for many others HIV/AIDS became a way (not necessarily on purpose) to mainstream queer communities and queer fights.

Part of this was due to a physical reality. Those queers who were more sexually adventurous, and therefore more likely to be sexually radical, were also those who were more likely to die, leaving more conservative or mainstream counterparts to take their positions within the movement.

But HIV/AIDS also had a mainstreaming effect for those who survived. This likely occurred at two levels. First it left many queers stuck putting all of their energy fighting for their lives, making it far more difficult to be radical and imaginative when it comes to queer liberation. We were forced to appeal to Government forces for medical help, making it far more difficult to be able demand the overthrow of these very institutions. More importantly the HIV/AIDS created increased space for people to be able to attack the very sexual freedom that was the backbone of much of the queer liberation movement. It became easy to blame sexual liberation, and in turn sexually free people for the crisis (strangely ignoring the role of Government, for example), creating a backlash against these movements and sexual practices. Sexual liberation had not just failed, according to this thesis, it had created an epidemic that almost wiped out an entire community. It was therefore something queers must reject.

This, I believe, is an extremely compelling thesis and does a lot to explain how queer movements and communities have changed and developed since the HIV/AIDS crisis. Through the framing of gentrification Schulman provides a unique perspective on the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts. She does so through a moving narrative that is full not just of political insight, but of her own grief and attempts to deal with what occurred.

For anyone interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts this is very well worth the read. 

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